Always a force to reckon with

‘Mercurial’ is a word that sits best alongside Pakistani cricketers. Capable of conjuring some of the most astonishing of deeds at once and equally capable of lowly and insipid performances, the Pakistani side always interested fans. Quite often a neutral’s favourite it has a rich history in the tournament too: one title, one runner-up finish and four semifinal appearances.

However, since its run to the final in 1999, it has had only one semifinal finish and that came in 2011. So, the desire in 2015 would be go one step further.

But the 1992 champion arrives Down Under after a string of below-par performances in ODIs in the recent past. It has now lost back-to-back ODI series to New Zealand and would be keen to get its act together in time for its opening clash against India on February 15.

Apart from skipper Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi, the side is inexperienced. Saeed Ajmal’s withdrawal from the squad, to work on his bowling action, after he was suspended in September, is a big blow. Along with that Mohammad Hafeez and Junaid Khan were out due to injury.

This has blunted what looked a sharp bowling attack which also included Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz. To what extent will Shahid Afridi and Yasir Shah be able to fill the gap remains to be seen. Over the years, Pakistan has always boasted of strong bowling units. And these were more often than not supplemented by capable batting line-ups. It might not be the case this time. Most members of the team have not played any international cricket in Australia. Opener Ahmed Shehzad, Ehsan Adil, Haris Sohail will all be on their maiden visits.

In that light Younis’ selection might make sense for he is a vastly experienced campaigner. But the 37-year-old, who will be playing his last World Cup, was nowhere in contention until a few months ago. His inclusion was bolstered by his run-feasts against Australia and New Zealand in the UAE.

But southpaw Fawad Alam’s exclusion, possibly to include Younis Khan, is still being debated. Considered an excellent ODI player, he had a good 2014 with a century, two half-centuries and two 30-plus scores in eight innings. But two poor outings against Australia last October were all it took for the selectors to axe him. Much will also depend on Umar Akmal. One of Pakistan’s exceptionally talented players, he hasn’t lived up to the expectations. For a while he used to double up as a wicketkeeper too and was given a certain leeway when his batting form dipped. But now that the gloveman Sarfraz Ahmed is also part of the squad, Akmal might just be reduced to a specialist batsman and hence will be closely watched.

Yet, nobody can write Pakistan off. Inexperience might be a genuine worry but history shows that Pakistanis revel in such situations. Its batsmen are an ambitious lot and in skipper Misbah-ul-Haq they have the perfect man to lead them.

Getting out of the group stages might not be tough ask, though a passage beyond that will be tough to find. Another semifinal slot can be termed a success. But with the men in green, you never know.

* * * THE CAPTAIN PREFERS A DEFENSIVE APPROACH

Misbah-ul-Haq, the 40-year-old captain, is Pakistan's biggest strength. The wealth of experience he has equips him to lead a young team whenever it finds itself in a spot of bother. "I would rather win a game with a defensive approach rather than lose it by being aggressive," Misbah has often said, but his recent 56-ball century against Australia brings to the fore his versatility.

Its biggest weakness will be in the bowling department. What looked until recently a fearsome attack which included Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz, the loss of Saeed Ajmal due to suspect bowling action and Junaid Khan will definitely hurt. With Mohammad Hafeez's action also being called out, Shahid Afridi has to shoulder much of the responsibility though Yasir Shah, a leggie, is an option too.

* * * PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ahmed Shehzad: Pakistan cricket is full of promise. In that scheme of things Ahmed Shehzad's is a highly regarded name. He is all of eight Tests and 56 One-day International matches old but the 23-yearold opener already has three Test and six ODI centuries to his name. Entrusted with the job of giving his team solid starts, this will be his first major test.

Umar Akmal: His cricketing ability has been obvious ever since he, as a 19-year-old, started his career with a brilliant 129 in Dunedin against a New Zealand attack which had Shane Bond in it. But how long can Pakistan wait for him to become a consistent run-hungry batsman? This World Cup might well answer that. In 2011, he finished as the second- highest run scorer for his team with 240 runs at an average of 48. Will he do better now?

Mohammad Irfan: At seven feet and one inch he is the world's tallest bowler. Not since the days of the legendary Joel Garner has anybody delivered the ball from such a height which makes him extremely awkward to face. In the last two years the left-armer has had a few breakdowns but he has emerged stronger each time and will look to the World Cup to make his biggest mark yet.

Shahid Afridi: When AB de Villiers broke Afridi's record for the fastest ODI century recently, it seemed to signal one thing: the erasure of the last remnants of him as a batsman. In the squad, primarily as a bowling all-rounder, this World Cup, if he is to be believed, will mark the end of his career. Is he still capable of a brilliant match-winning moment?

* * * THE TEAM

Misbah-ul-Haq (captain), Ahmed Shehzad, Ehsan Adil, Haris Sohail, Nasir Jamshed, Mohammad Irfan, Rahat Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed, Shahid Afridi, Sohaib Maqsood, Sohail Khan, Umar Akmal (wicketkeeper), Wahab Riaz, Yasir Shah and Younis Khan.

N. Sudarshan